Detroit UnADULTerated: It Was the End of Times, It Was the Best of Times
The Detroit electronic duo ADULT. have spent their career mostly working in isolation, but a new collaboration series hopes to build a community spirit in their changing city.
ADULT. with Dorit Chrysler, center / Photos courtesy of ADULT.
Detroit is a lonely place. Walking around, you’re almost always on your own, save for a few poor souls waiting on a bus that isn’t coming. Your footprints stay pristine and untouched in the snow. Unlike in New York City or Los Angeles, you aren’t thrust into social situations at the drop of a drink. This isolation creates a petri dish of Midwestern artists growing from within, thriving in a world apart from the suburbs that keep the battered metropolis at arm’s length. Whether through Motown, the birth of techno in the 80s, or outsiders like punk rock forefathers Death and ghost-folk crooner Rodriguez, the city has always been a bubble of idiosyncratic artistic expression.
ADULT., the husband and wife duo of Adam Lee Miller and Nicola Kuperus, have been crafting sonic and visual art from the depths of Detroit’s bell jar for the last 18 years, tying them to this tradition. They make a specific kind of electronic music, one that’s filled with Miller’s blurts of synthesizers accompanied by Kuperus’s deadpan dare-you-to-blink-anxiety-laced vocals. The combination provides the perfect soundtrack for winding below the looming, vacant Michigan Central Station or watching the waves of neon lights from Motor City Casino cascade against the horizon. It’s also increasingly a tether to the musical undercurrents of a city struggling to find its voice in the current era.
Right now, Detroit is transitioning from bankruptcy dystopia to Dickensian novelty phase. Yes, its first Whole Foods opened up to success, but people’s water is being shut-off. Yes, artisanal cocktail and farm-to-table restaurants open monthly, but minorities are less likely to be hired there, let alone dine there. Recently, the Magic Stick, one of Detroit’s most iconic rock ‘n’ roll clubs, announced they would be transforming solely into an electronic music venue. At best Detroit can be summed up as a city filled with contrasts and changes right now. With a John Varvatos store due to open in the spring and Brooklyn’s famed Galapagos Art Space moving its headquarters to Detroit, thinkpieces aplenty can’t help but position Detroit as the next New York, a comparison that highlights both the opportunities for and threats to its unique artistic environment.
For ADULT., the city has been a place where they have been able to explore their own weird impulses. Miller describes his musical education in the late 80s as contentious. “I went to get a teacher to learn [music] theory, and he said ‘give me a song and I’ll teach you,’ so I brought ‘She’s Lost Control’ by Joy Division,” he explains. “And he said ‘this basically breaks every single musical rule ever,’ and I got up and never came back.”
ADULT. with Douglas McCarthy, right
These days, ADULT. are anchors of Detroit’s experimental scene, and, backed by a recent grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, they’ve embarked on a new project that aspires to both capture the artistic alchemy of Detroit’s isolation and escape the city’s limitations through far-ranging collaborations. The Knight Arts Challenge to Detroit was introduced in 2013 as a grant for artists who proposed to shine a different light on the city. There were 1,400 applicants and 56 winners, including ADULT., Miller and Kuperus proposed an album of duets recorded in their home studio with various collaborators, spanning distance in sound and geography to create a wholly unique record with friends and acquaintances while exploring the ever changing streets of a city they’ve called home for over two decades. In the coming months, their Detroit House Guest project will welcome six musicians—Dorit Chrysler, Douglas J. McCarthy, Shannon Funchess, Michael Gira, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, and Lun*na Menoh—to live and record with ADULT.
“Detroit has energy, a cultural vibrancy that we want to feed and provide fuel for that momentum, people that have strong artistic excellence and the desire to make something that the community will respond to” Dennis Scholl, Vice President for Arts at the Knight Foundation, tells me. Referring to ADULT.’s ability to amplify the city’s character, through their project, he adds, “They’re both talented musicians with thousands [of fans] looking at their Detroit.”
Kuperus and McCarthy
The pair and their first guest, Douglas J. McCarthy, along with McCarthy’s wife, the filmmaker Hazel Hill McCarthy III, met me a few days after New Year’s at Northern Lights Lounge, not far from their home in the New Center neighborhood. McCarthy is the founder of one of the first and most progressive electronic acts of all time, Nitzer Ebb. Hailing Chelmsford, Essex, in the UK, McCarthy retaliated against his home country’s burgeoning postpunk rock scene of the late 70s and early 80s by embracing and mastering the early sounds of what would become electronic body music and later be known as industrial music. He talks a lot, but his resume totally gives him the right to.
“There are seminal moments that inspire a generation, you’ve got to have something to fight against,” he says. “So you pick up a guitar or synth even, in my case, for my hatred of rock and roll at the time and I’m 15 years old so I start a band with my buddies.” His latest solo LP, Kill Your Friends, refines his approach to the genre of music he helped define years ago. Upon listening, it’s not hard to imagine why these friends, who first met in a dressing room in Madrid, have now found themselves musical bedfellows. Miller’s synths and drum machines coupled with Kuperus’s antsy, robotic vocals are a perfect match for McCarthy’s venomous voice.
Miller and McCarthy
“You do this [recording] and find melodies that most vocalists don’t have, and Doug can find something really good quickly,” Miller says. The project, with its process of recording and living together, has created its own collaborative environment. “We’re pretty lo-fi,” Kuperus asserts.
“It can be as complicated or as uncomplicated seeing as the methodology is wrapped up in the ideology.” McCarthy adds. “Beforehand, we agreed not to talk about anything we wanted to do.” ADULT. have only ever recorded outside of their own studio once before, for 2007’s Why Bother, so the introduction of new people creates new variables in the recording process.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of people, and I’ve missed out on these things because ADULT. are on the opposite end,’ McCarthy says. “They’ve made this thing of their own by being completely isolated and deliberately cutting people off but not listening to anyone. But we’ve come to the same realization, if it sounds like the song you wanted it to, than keep it.” Miller notes that the writing process has gotten faster and smoother, and both couples agree that keeping close quarters and working together in Detroit during the holidays proved to be creatively beneficial.
“They came here and it’s been fucking intense and we’ve had weird things happen,” Kuperus remembers. “Even on New Year’s ‘til midnight we worked and cheers-ed and then listened to the gunfire of a machine gun outside. And we’re working so hard on this song, and Hazel’s on her laptop [editing a documentary about Genesis P-Orridge], and she’s like, ‘I need to be with you guys.’”
“I never thought about that, how it would feel, what it would be like bringing people into our isolated world,” Miller chimes in. “And I’m glad we did this interview after the end of the recording process because we went in blind.”
Chrysler, loving Detroit
Just a few weeks after the McCarthy sessions, ADULT,’s second guest, Dorit Chrysler, joined the couple to record her contributions to the album. Unlike their relationship with McCarthy, Miller and Kuperus barely knew Chrysler, having just met her briefly at Moogfest, where they all performed last April. Chrysler is a master of the theremin, and her powerful voice is evocative of Nico at her chanteuseiest.
“It’s a very soulful instrument; I lead people into it,” the Austrian-born musician says of her instrument of choice, a sort of sci-fi contraption that dates back to 1929. She’s smoking a cigarette and lightly shivering in the mid-January chill after a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. “It’s not really up in popular music. I wish people like Bjork would use it in a contemporary context.”
Her set, bookended by improvisational dance collaboration between Kuperus and Biba Bell and noise demolisher Pharmakon, mesmerized the crowd and pulled them along with her hypnotic music. Watching her theremin performance for the first time makes it seem as if she possesses maestro-like superpowers, a quality she calls the “Houdini effect.”
Chrysler and budding theremin players
Earlier in the day, Chrysler taught a series of workshops at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, including one directed towards youngsters interested in playing the space-age like sonic device. Kids came and watched with wonderment as she seemingly bent and twisted music out of thin air with her hands instructing them to do the same.
“I think Detroit is unique,” she says, offering her first impressions of the city’s balance of isolation and community. “There’s no other city with clashing contrasts of decaying splendor in the center. You see these lonely figures walking in the streets like zombies. It has this really eerie quality, but, of course, I don’t fully understand the picture. Detroit is not a city to be underestimated, though, for sure. Even tonight, the crowd was so cool. I really enjoyed the energy and that they were open to this. In New York people are so worried about their two- or three-thousand-dollar-a-month rent, they can’t pay attention.”
Chrysler and Miller
She takes a drag and we start talking about the collaboration with ADULT. “I started with this like whoo-deee on theremin and then we made some modulation, then Adam came up with this great idea and then Nicola came up with this great idea,” she says, describing the first song they wrote the morning after she arrived.
“I can’t remember anytime where it’s been so equal and so natural,” she adds. “We wrote together from scratch. It’s really the most balanced, equal thing I’ve ever done, and that’s really magical when that happens.”
Maximilian de la Garza is a writer living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter.